Common Ground

 

No one could be more different from me than Marco Pierre White. I’m an American – he’s English. I’m a visual artist – he’s a chef. I’m chill – he’s volatile. Despite these differences, reading his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, has both inspired me and spoken to me both viscerally and intellectually.

This is not the first time that I have found commonality with people that seem very different from me; despite our differences, and sometimes because of them, these people have often served as guiding lights and I have seen them as kindred spirits. As a teenager I discovered the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Despite the cultural differences between us, I found much in common with Burne-Jones: he was also an only child from humble beginnings who used art to better himself. I also connected with people such as French comics artist Jean Giraud: again, he was an only child, his biological father was absent in his life, his grandparents helped raise him, and he used his art to navigate through childhood. These are just two individuals among many others that I’ve felt an affinity with. I feel a strong kinship with these people because the fight for excellence knows no boundaries: cultural, geographical, or other differences do not matter whatsoever.

As a draftsman, storyteller, and picture maker, I’ve drawn most of my inspiration from visual artists: painters, illustrators, comic book artists, and the like. In addition, I’ve also drawn inspiration from musicians, writers, directors, etc both foreign and domestic. No matter the discipline, the one common denominator that’s always inspired me is excellence. My reverence for excellence is what led me to discover Marco, a British chef and culinary hero who’s famous for being the first and youngest English chef to win three Michelin stars.

Marco’s book showed me that the struggle to succeed as an artist is also the same struggle that one faces on the road to becoming a great chef: it’s all or nothing. You either do it right or you don’t do it all — there is no in between. I found the same relentless, hell-bent attitude that exists in my life on the pages of Marco’s book. It’s always comforting when you find another person whose bloody mindedness is the same as your own. Perhaps the one thing that struck me the most while reading The Devil In The Kitchen was that beyond all the kitchen staff bollockings, service meltdowns, cheese-flinging episodes and notoriety there was a deeply profound belief in himself and his abilities. Things like that always speak to me. It’s the common thread that binds me with every single person that has inspired me along the way. Again, the fight for excellence unites me with this brotherhood of people who are driven by a singular and profound belief in themselves. Despite our differences, we are the same.

Craft and Substance

After my last blog post, I realized that there are two things that it boils down to when making art for me: craft and substance. I’m at an age where certain things need to be inherent in whatever I create: It must be well designed and it must be well crafted. I’m not a fan of bad art. I loathe it; I loathe it even more if I’m the one producing it. In my eyes, there’s no excuse for mediocrity. None. You either do it right or you don’t do it at all. Facility and great technique can certainly be impressive, but they alone are not enough. The piece of work being created has to say something about me as a person — it has to have substance to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to hang on a gallery wall or if it’s going to be in my sketchbook — the work has to reflect some aspect of me as an individual and my POV on the world at large, or whatever. Otherwise, what’s the point? The drawing that adorns this week’s post is a fine example of what I’m talking about.

When I read the story of Helene Lebel, it struck a chord deep within me. In my life, I’ve encountered and witnessed up close what the effects of mental illness do to people. On a personal level, I watched as my uncle, Raul, struggled valiantly with schizophrenia for over 30 years. It’s a horrible thing to watch – physically, my uncle appeared to be well but his appearance belied the internal chaos and the forces that were mentally ravaging him. I also witnessed the scourge of mental illness as part of a job I held. Years ago, I worked as a Spanish mental health interpreter for San Joaquin County; on a daily basis I, once again, got to see the insidious effects of mental illness at work. Along with the doctor or therapist and the client, I was present during appointments. This meant that I heard everything that was said during the appointment. Sometimes, I wish that I’d never heard some of the things that were discussed during those appointments. Interpreting at the clinic for adults was bad enough, but interpreting for the children’s clinic was heartbreaking.

Sadly, in 2018, mental health still carries a stigma. People who suffer with mental health issues are still described as being: crazy, nuts, cuckoo, whacked, touched, bat-shit crazy, etc. It’s so unfair to label people like that — they can’t help it. I often wonder if the people who make such remarks about complete strangers would do the same for someone they love? I’ve learned that everything changes when an issue becomes personal. Funny that. After my experience with mental illness, and based on what I’ve seen and heard, I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy.

Helene Lebel’s story is tragic. At age 19, when she was a law student, she began to show symptoms of schizophrenia, and was forced to abandon her studies. In 1936 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in Vienna’s Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. Two years later, the Germans annexed Austria. Helene’s parents were made to believe that she was going to be released, but that was never going to happen. In August 1940, Helene’s mother was notified that Helene had been transferred to a hospital in Bavaria, when in reality she had been transferred to a converted prison in Brandenburg, Germany. There, she was subjected to a physical examination and then lead into a shower room. Helene was one of 9,772 persons who were gassed at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Center. She was listed in official paperwork as having died in her room from “acute schizophrenic excitement.”

I would like to thank the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for providing information and details on Helene’s life.

Ten Years On Paper


I started my first blog, Cubist Comix, in September 2008, which means my work has been online for a little more than a decade. Back then, blogging was fairly new, and sketch blogs were rare. I remember how confused I was by HTML — it was all Greek to me! Thankfully, my wife understood the basics of this foreign language and was able to help me set up many parts of my blog. Since then, keeping a sketchbook has become incredibly popular and many people are sharing their work on websites, blogs, and social media. Some of the work out there is good, but a majority of it is pedestrian, banal, and poorly executed. I continue to be proud of the quality of work that I insist upon for myself. I’m very hard on myself; I loath mediocrity and the lack of wanting to improve. I am also proud that while I maintain a social media presence, I have not abandoned my blog as many others seem to have done.

The past ten years have been full of changes for me and for my work. It should come as no surprise that my point of view regarding visual journaling and blogging has changed as well. For many years, most of my blog posts consisted of a drawing created during the previous week and the story behind its creation. Believe me, I’ve drawn my share of coffee swilling cafe dwellers over the past decade; it seems there’s a never-ending supply! I loved these drawings and associated posts, but recently I have come to realize that they are just not enough any more. I have come to realize that I need to approach both my work and my posts in a way that is more filled with meaning.

When Twitter first started, people were literally tweeting about the most pedestrian things you can imagine. The novelty of doing that wore out lickety-split. Why? Because no one really cares that you’re going to your kitchen to get a bagel – that’s why. Sketchbooks are wonderful things, but ultimately they need to say something more profound about you beyond what you’re going to eat or what the person sitting next to you looks like. I’ve always been of the opinion that after someone thumbs through the pages of your sketchbook, they should have a good idea about who you are and what you believe in, and the longer I keep a sketchbook, the more I see that this is the truth.

Maybe this approach to keeping a sketchbook and blogging about it isn’t for everyone. After all, opening up and spewing your opinions takes cojones. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something that’s necessary if you’re going to grow as an artist and as an individual. Whether you’re a professional or hobbyist doesn’t matter, what matters is the bravery to embrace change and put yourself, the raw unadulterated you, out there. This is why Barron Storey and Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks will remain as examples for me to follow. Visual journaling has exploded over the past ten years and that’s great, but it’s full potential has yet to be realized. Much like with Twitter, soon folks will realize that fluff wears out its novelty right quick, and only that which has depth will survive.

Fighting The Good Fight

Vivir es lo más peligroso que tiene la vida,” — The most dangerous thing in life is living. These words from famed Spanish singer-songwriter, Alejandro Sanz, are something we can all relate to. There are things that can happen in a moment that can change things forever. Sometimes for good, but, unfortunately, far too often for the worse, and, sadly, too often for the much worse. There is no rhyme or reason to why such things happen — one day something happens and, bam, things are never the same.

One of these things happened to my friend, Serena Miller, when she was eight. She was involved in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The results of that accident have affected her life, often dramatically, every day for the past thirty years. Sadly, Serena isn’t the first person whom I’ve known that has suffered a traumatic brain injury because of a drunk driver. My sister-in-law was similarly injured when she was a little older than Serena, but not yet an adult. It’s a horrible thing — a thing that robs you of your own future potential and brings forth demons that you’ll struggle with again and again whether you want to or not. It’s a fucked up thing for someone to have to deal with.

Mental health is no joke and yet it’s still something that the general public stigmatizes and makes heartless cracks about. Too often people with mental health issues are told: “You need to work more,” or, “Do something to get your mind focused on something else,” or, “You just need to get more exercise and to eat right.” Would these same people dole out such bleak wisdom to someone suffering from cancer? To someone suffering from alzheimer’s disease? To someone suffering from kidney failure? This level of ignorance is infuriating to say the least. To add insult to injury, they refer to people with mental health issues as “cuckoo” or “nuts” or whatever. I always wonder if they would say the same things about someone they loved.

Last week, Serena reached out and asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a GoFundMe fundraising account that she’s established to help her get through the rough period that she’s currently going through. Serena continues to deal with her mental health issues as well as trying to raise her ten year old son. As an artist, I feel that it’s my duty to speak up about things that matter to me and help as much as I can, so I told Serena that I would draw her and spotlight both her story and her GoFundMe link as part of this week’s post. It’s the least that I can do. Please help if you can. If you can’t help monetarily, then please share Serena’s link. Finally, please remember to be kind as you go through life; you never know what somebody else is going through.

Living The Life

Every week I make a post about my continuing exploits of living the life. After all these years, I can tell you that it’s getting better all the time. I draw all day; my work continues to improve and grow in visibility, and people pay me damn decent prices for my work. All those things are awesome, but the best thing of all is drawing in my sketchbook. Journaling really is a completely unique endeavor: you live your live and do whatever you do, and then you put it all down on paper and report back with tales of public characters that you couldn’t make up if you tried: crowded laundromats, busy restaurants, coffeehouses brimming with students, hipsters, and baristas with the patience of saints. At this point, there is no alternative and I, quite frankly, wouldn’t have it any other way.

This week’s post is adorned with a drawing that I started a couple of weeks ago over a couple of nice cold porters. Drinking and drawing is a good time; drinking, drawing, and eating while having a really good conversation is even better. Usually, all my masterpieces are created while I’m doing one or more of the aforementioned activities. Add to that all the very kind compliments that are hurled at me by coffeehouse patrons, laundromat attendants, random passersby, and the occasional cute girl and you get an idea of what I’m getting at here. Hyperbole you say? How little you know about the life of an artist.

Like the art, the lifestyle is getting better and becoming more and more interesting all the time. Being the dedicated graphic journalist that I am, it is my job to continue this time honored tradition of reportage and to carefully observe and record every act of random human behavior that gets put on public display. All of this done, naturally, over a fine beverage, a tasty bit of food, or a good conversation, or if I’m lucky, all three. Life is good, and the best is yet to come.

Reconnecting and Refocusing


There are three things in my life that I value greatly: good friends, good conversations, and great ideas. There’s nothing like picking someone’s brain over a nice cup of coffee and discovering something new in the process. This is part of my creative ritual; it’s how new projects begin for me.

The past two weeks have been overflowing in abundance with such things and people. I was in dire need of reconnecting with my Bay Area roots and of being around the people who inspire me and whom I respect. The first part my adventure began on the patio of Julie’s Coffee and Tea Garden in Alameda with my wife and our dear friend Tara. It was a perfect Bay Area afternoon. As I sketched, we talked about traveling, languages, and food. Exactly the type of conversation that I like to have. Things only got better after this. Later that evening, we drove to Oakland to our friend Sebastian’s house for a fabulous get together. We talked; we drank; we laughed; we sang; I saw people I hadn’t seen in almost 30 years, and I gorged myself on Maria’s tortilla de patatas! Hombre, ¡que delicia! It just doesn’t get better than that. A huge thanks to Kevin, Tara, and Sebastian for making our time in the Bay Area so enjoyable. The following day started with a yummy breakfast and conversation at local country diner, Marti’s Place. We topped off our breakfast with a serving of blintzes — yumm! At that moment life was pretty damn good. I like Alameda; I could easily live there if not for the price of rent. I must admit that I’m pretty fortunate as I’ve spent a lot of time in the Bay Area over the past 30 plus years. Most of the major events in my life have taken place there — the Bay Area will always be my home to me. After saying our goodbyes after breakfast we drove to San Francisco and met up with friends from Washington State who were passing through. It was their first time in The City, so we got to play tour guides.

Finally, this past weekend, we spent our Saturday in Davis doing all the things that we love doing: hanging in cafes, watching good movies, going to bookstores, eating good food, and hanging at cafes even more. Watching Spike Lee’s new film, Blackklansman, was a highlight for me. Despite its subject matter being vile and abhorrent, it’s still something that must be addressed in this day and age. It’s treatment of racism is unapologetic and a punch to the gut of the viewer. I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it. Afterwards, we walked across the street and spent time in the Avid Reader because, you know, you can’t ever have enough books. Sure enough, I scored a brand spanking new copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. That made me a happy camper. We rounded off our day with a delicious dinner al fresco at a Mexican joint called Toro Bravo. Yeah, I’ll have a five gallon jug of their bean dip fed intravenously to me next time, thank you. Afterwards, we topped dinner off with a trip over to The Davis Creamy. A scoop of avocado coconut and a scoop of vanilla and, well, it’s not getting any better than that.

The past three weeks have done exactly what I wanted them to do: they have recharged my batteries, helped me refocus, and given me a much needed kick in the arse. Let the projects begin!

My Week In Words and Pictures

Another week of adventures, another journal spread. This is the metronomic pace by which I live my life. My days have become events that need to be chronicled and preserved no matter how grandiose or pedestrian they may be. Those events then go from being pages in my journal to becoming blog posts, social media posts, and ultimately who knows what — you’re guess is as good as mine. Book editors out in the wide world, that’s a big nudge to you.
This past week was good and I managed to get a good sketchbook spread out of it. Weather it’s having a beer or two with friends, enjoying a free play in the park, watching a really good documentary on someone whose work I admire, or drawing unsuspecting victims at my local Starbucks , it’s all about capturing moments that will never return. This past week was filled with lots of great music as you can tell from my Clapton Playlist. All those songs were flowing through my earbuds this week as I worked on my latest journal spread. Listening to music as I work is something that I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been drawing; it truly is one of the most pleasurable things that one you can do with your time.

For those of you reading this post who keep a sketch-journal, make sure that you’re capturing those all important moments in your own lives that come and go in a flash. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter, put ‘em down and give them a place to exist. Eventually, at some point, you’ll look back and give thanks that you chronicled your daily life as it happened. Doing so will give you insight into your own life in a way no other medium can. Such is the magic of keeping a sketch-journal.

Make Art, Be Happy



“Make art, be happy,” popped into my mind this morning as I was having my first cup of coffee while drawing in my sketchbook and listening to my Steely Dan playlist on Spotify. I often have these types of thoughts pop into my mind that throw me a curveball; they’re deceptively simple but they somehow make perfect sense. Crazy, right. There’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple.

This past week has been decent; it’s been a mixture of both good and bad — mostly good. At the end of it all, I learned a few things. One of them is that the things that leave a bitter taste in your mouth are often the things that teach you the best lessons. At my age, I’ve learned that there are something’s that are simply not worth my time and that it’s best to move on. A lot of my thinking is done as I draw. That’s one of the magic things about drawing: I can totally cut everything around me out and focus on one thing. It enables me to work through whatever it is as I put pencil or pen to paper.

This week’s drawing afforded me to sit and enjoy music and podcasts that put new ideas into my head. That in of itself is priceless. Household objects may seem boring but they’re actually quite fun to draw. Not only are they great practice but they also challenge you to try and put some character into them and use them to help you communicate what you’re experiencing at any given moment. It’s like a quick snapshot of a moment in your daily life that others wouldn’t necessarily ever know about. That type of communication is what art is all about; pulling the viewer into your personal world is the whole point. Writing and drawing about your daily life is one of the best things you can do. It’s therapeutic, it helps you to focus, and it gives you an outlet to express yourself. What more could you ask for, right? Make art and be happy.

My Life On Paper

Keeping a sketch-journal for the better part of three decades is respectable to say the least. I used to go to cafes to draw and I’d never see anyone else doing the same thing. It was strange to see that. Okay, maybe every once in a great while I’d see another bloke with a sketchbook but it wasn’t very often that I did. Nowadays, that’s changed. Now, it seems like everyone is lugging around a sketchbook — I think that’s great. I, personally, can’t imagine myself not carrying my sketchbook around with me. What if something amazingly awesome were to happen in front of me? Can’t draw it without my sketchbook.

Over the years, I’ve written and drawn about all sorts of stuff in my journal: ideas, thoughts, feelings, opinions, you name it, I’ve written about it. Throughout my years of graphic journaling I’ve felt like there’s never been a real balance between what I write and what I draw. I think that a successful sketch-journal should reflect both aspects in equal measure. Ah, the ongoing struggles of a working artist. I wonder how many people ever imagine such things when looking through my sketch-journal? My gut instinct tells me not many. I’m not surprised and ultimately I don’t really care.

There’s always something to write about and there’s always something to draw; every single day is filled with strange and wonderful things done by people who are strange and who do strange things all the time. You just never know what you’re going to see and hear on any given day. Good, bad, stupid, pompous, disgusting — it’s all game for my trusty Rapidograph. There’s going to be a whole lot of that in my forthcoming journal pages. What will make it all different is the approach that I’ll be taking: a little more honest, a little more reflective, a little sarcastic, a little more to the point. It’s the only way to do this. Barbara Bradley, the head of the illustration department at The Academy of Art College in the 80s used to say, “Put it down with authority,” when it came to drawing; those sage words can also apply to writing as well. When someone looks at my sketch-journal my life has to be on those pages otherwise I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.

Lastly, a word about the sketch for this post. I’d been sitting at my local coffeehouse drawing and sucking up the free AC for the better part of a Sunday Afternoon and I had started to pack my things up when suddenly, outside the window, I saw this vision of beauty appear. There was no way that I was leaving before drawing her. Beautiful dark eyes, long lashes, long dark thick hair, how could I resist? Thankfully, she sat for quite a while as she conversed thus allowing  me to immortalize her in the pages of my journal. Job done.

Doing What I do

Today, I started my day at my local coffeehouse working in my sketchbook. It was a cloudy, cold, rainy day so there were lots of folks sitting inside having tasty hot beverages. I’m about halfway through my softcover Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook, and I must say that I’ve found it very nice to work in. I’ll definitely being buying another as soon as I’m finished with this one. Along with drawings of cafe patrons, this sketchbook has also allowed me to start stretching and exploring other stylistic options as well. Interestingly, this sketchbook has not only allowed me to experiment, but it’s also reminded me of the importance of it also being a journal for opinions, thoughts, and ideas.

As I was drawing, a young man sitting over at the bar waved, gave me a thumbs up, and flashed his sketchbook at me. I wandered over, and greeted him. We had a really good discussion and he asked for some advice. He’s just starting out, but he definitely wants to learn. More importantly, he’s willing to listen to critical feedback. This puts him ahead of a lot of people. Today, people get offended far too easily when it comes to such things. I always say, “You can either be offended or you can learn.” It was a pleasure speaking to someone who clearly wants to learn. I love sharing my knowledge and encouraging younger artists when the opportunity presents itself. I feel that it’s something important because it’s not every day that you run into someone with decades of experience who’s willing to give you advice. All in all, it’s been a good day. Life is good.